I set foot on Naxos Island with maybe three other people from the ferry. Soula Hotel told me thereâ€™d be a shuttle waiting, and so I walked until I found my man holding a sign. He shook my hand and helped me aboard â€“ me trying not to ogle his handsome face — and then he apologized for his broken English.
(His English, by the way, was perfect.)
TripAdvisor recently proclaimed Naxos one of the best islands in the world. I donâ€™t know why I tell you this, because it means nothing. But Iâ€™m only a little ashamed to admit that this very title made me Google some images of the place, and then I decided immediately itâ€™d be my next spot. I booked a dorm room at the Soula Hotel (there are zero hostels on the island), and upon check-in was told that I was the only occupant.
In the three days I spent wandering around Chora, the main town, I did not run into a single other tourist. Not one. Naxos is one of those rare islands (like Lesvos, the one Iâ€™m on now) where tourism doesnâ€™t reign supreme. Its harbour front is busy all day and night, regardless of the season.
The main town is built up from the harbour, with homes and businesses stacked against the hillside like a Lego-land. At the top is a Venetian castle guarding the city, looking out onto the Aegean and the portara, that glorious marble doorway to Apolloâ€™s Temple (and another universe).
The portara was my first destination on Saturday morning. I wandered the waterfront, across the tiny sandbar, and up around the hillside dotted with marigolds and daisies. The only other explorers being a Greek mother and her two young children. â€œHello,â€ the mother said in English. Is my tourist showing?
I came back at sunset. The portara gave me a peace I hadnâ€™t felt at the other ruins thus far. How many times has the sun set over this island, and how long has the doorway seen it happen? The Greek architects got exactly what they wanted. Immortality.
I spent the afternoon roaming around the narrow streets, fuchsia flowers overflowing the walled fortress, cats laying on brick walls, painters and carpenters side-stepping me and my camera. Iâ€™d just stand there looking confused and someone would ask, â€œCastle?â€ Iâ€™d nod; theyâ€™d point me in the right direction. All roads lead to the castle. I had the whole damned place to myself. I peeked into windows, pushed against doors, sang to myself. (Hell, maybe people just avoided me.)
Only the Archaeological Museum was open. The front desk lady didnâ€™t speak English, but counted out my money and then abruptly shuffled away from the desk, ran to two large doors, pulled back their massive iron locks, and then swung the entrance open. I felt a bit like how the Pope must feel before stepping foot onto his balcony in the Vatican.
Inside: thousands of Early Cycladic period figurines, and then goodies from the Late Mycenaean Period, like jars and toys and jewelry. Just me, all alone. I could reach out and touch 5000-year-old pieces of archaeology. Outside: a mosaic mural laying spread-eagle on the ground, withstanding the elements.
I got really used to dining and drinking alone in Chora. Naxos makes its own special liqueur known as citron. I figured a cafÃ© dubbed Citron CafÃ© would be a good place to try it out. So I bought some postcards and sat inside, ordered some taste samplers and then a Citron Sour with crushed ice, and wrote home until the sun went down. The samplers, by the way, are delivered free for you to try. I was only a little tipsy by the time I left.
I spent my evening at Ebeeria, the beer hall, where I sat for hours ordering Black Mak because I hadnâ€™t had a damned good dark beer in weeks. I hoped that the longer I stayed, someone would chat me up. (There is great folly in this logic.) An older blonde-haired Brit lady breezed in –obviously a regular as she chatted with the bartender — and then she popped open her laptop. She wanted to smoke, but the bartender swiveled the â€œNo Smokingâ€ sign toward her.
â€œWhat! This must be a new thing.â€ She was upset. I found myself wondering how a middle-aged British woman found herself on Naxos Island (living?), single and alone (presumably?). And then I realized I could ask myself the same question.
I had grand plans for Naxos, but they didnâ€™t happen. I wanted to see the three giant kouri and I wanted to hike Mount Zeus. I wanted to visit the mountain villages. But I woke up on Sunday morning feeling miserable, and opted to spend the day on the beach with my book instead. Two elderly ladies approached me, and when they learned I only spoke English, one of them fished around in her purse for a Christian pamphlet about losing a loved one. How did she know?
My favourite, though, was the old lady at Soula. I had noticed her coming into the lobby earlier in the day. She blessed herself at the front desk. I had no idea who she was; my chauffeur brushed her off but she seemed to know the place.
She bustled back inside later in the evening, wearing grey and white robes, with a radio blaring from her pocket. She fumbled for it, turned it off. She approached me, with a vase of flowers wrapped in tinfoil and pink ribbon, and sat it down next to my computer. She explained in Greek what each flower meant. Then she held out a box of Turkish delight, urging me to take one. Then another. I didnâ€™t know what to say; she kept saying â€œsorryâ€ as if apologizing for her lack of English. So I kept saying â€œThank youâ€ over and over in Greek, and we reached some sort of mutual friendship formed by our differences.
She shuffled back in 30 minutes later with a dish of dessert; some sort of cinnamon pudding. She let me sniff the cinnamon shaker so Iâ€™d know what I was eating. I found out the next day sheâ€™s the ownerâ€™s wife.
And there, I feel, is that little nugget of travel truth we all hope to find â€“ some singular situation which helps you sum up how a place really feels. A kind little old lady with better things to do than feed me, a paying customer, but who does so anyway. Just because sheâ€™s kind and gentle, just like Naxos.